This question was prompted by a particular statement by user Pieter Geerkens in the discussion about the deaths due to famine during the Great Depression found here. My understanding of the Great Depression was that it was at it's worst at the start, and actions like the New Deal led to recovery, but in this chart:


There's a clear, and fairly substantial increase in the rate of deaths in 1934, and then again in 1936. The conclusion of the other discussion seemed to be that the Great Depression did not lead to an increase in deaths from starvation, but at the same time as some medical advances appear to be reducing the deaths from certain diseases, deaths from illnesses you can attribute to 'weakness' and therefore malnutrition such as Heart disease and Pneumonia sharply increase, and actually continue to increase substantially for the remainder of the 1930s.

Wouldn't these deaths be consistent with both the short term, and long term effects of malnutrition? Particularly among children whose development was stunted by calorie deficiencies?

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    Heart disease and cancer are both have large increases across the time period, and neither tend to be a major mortality factor for children or young adults.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 16:09
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    The data talks about 114 cities... Is there a possibility of young people moving from farmlands to cities during the worst years and lowering the mortality data for those years?
    – SJuan76
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 16:41
  • SJuan76 ... that's an interesting point. So work dries up in the farms, and young people move to the cities, reducing the mortality rate, particularly while food aid is available. But then what causes the bump? It would be interesting to see if it correlates with an end to a period of rapid urbanisation. That could indicate that underneath all of this, there was an increase in mortality, even from '29 to '33. Commented May 28, 2018 at 1:37
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    These are rather small changes; I'm not convinced a 3.5% difference is statistically significant in the first place. Besides, if anything it was 1932/1933 which had unusually low death rates, so 1934 was merely a return to the norm.
    – Semaphore
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 1:53
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    Tempting to think that uptick in "pneumonia" might be due to the Dust Bowl.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 3:04

1 Answer 1


Two points:

First, if you look closely at the numbers, you see a big rise in the death rate from heart disease and a smaller rise in the death rate from cancer during that period. It's not obvious that either would be much affected by malnutrition. (If anything, given how heart disease is driven by obeasity, the opposite may be true.) If you subtract those deaths out, the remainder (which ought to contain all the famine-related deaths) drops throughout the period. I wonder if we're not seeing the effects of the significant increase in smoking in the early decade of the century?

Secondly, to draw any valid conclusion, the numbers must be scaled by population which was increasing all through this time. (Otherwise, an increase in deaths could simply be due to more people being around.)

It's pretty clear that these numbers by themselves do not support the idea that there was a rise in famine-induced deaths in the US in the 30s.

  • First off, I'm going to stop you there, on the obesity suggestion. That might be relevant to reduced calorie intake in modern America, but in that generation obesity was such a niche issue, that you could hardly suggest that malnutrition could have a positive effect in any category. I saw that suggested in the discussion I referenced and it's just an absurd way to interpret the information. Commented May 27, 2018 at 15:18
  • Also ... those are rates, not total deaths. So they ARE scaled by the population. And as I mentioned, most disease related categories that could be attributed to malnutrition (such as pneumonia) also increased in the same year. On the subject of population increase, it's my understanding that there was also increased urbanisation during this period, as desperate farmers moved to the cities... Commented May 27, 2018 at 15:19
  • Ah. I missed the fact that they're rates -- thanks!
    – Mark Olson
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 15:21
  • Just because being too fat contributes to heart disease means nothing about whether being malnourished does. There is in fact evidence that malnourishment causes heart issues.
    – user15620
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 15:56
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    That is not true..."heart failure" is the leading cause of death of anorexics. In terms of the heart, it is not a linear relationship between fat and health. It is a bell curve, where what is healthy is being in the middle ranges and what is unhealthy is being an outlier. We fixate of "fat == heart troubles" because in our overfed society, the majority only ever have troubles on one end. In a society at the opposite end, where food is scarce, you might see something very different. Heart disease is not "driven by obesity". Obesity is one of a number of different drivers of heart failure.
    – user15620
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 22:37

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